Every night was an emotional challenge for San Francisco 49ers quarterback Shaun Hill. He had been in numerous competitions for playing time throughout his athletic career, but last year was the first time he felt like a prop in a shell game.
All he wanted was a chance to compete for the starting job, an assurance he received from the team when he signed a new three-year, $6 million contract that offseason. After all, he had led the 49ers to a pair of late-season victories in 2007 in his first two career starts, this after he had seen the field for just two plays in his first five seasons.
However he sensed early in training camp that new offensive coordinator Mike Martz was tilting the scales in favor of journeyman J.T. O'Sullivan, a backup under Martz the previous year in Detroit. "He wanted somebody else to play, so he did what he had to do to make that happen and make me look bad," Hill said last week between joint workouts with the Raiders in Napa, six days before being named the 49ers' starter for 2009.
"It was totally known, a done deal," fellow QB Alex Smith added. "[Martz] just manipulated it, with everything."
Martz, who is working for NFL Network this year after not being brought back by the 49ers, refuted the allegations Wednesday morning. He said it was apparent to everyone watching the team's practices that O'Sullivan had outplayed Hill and Smith. "[Hill and Smith are] going to be angry," Martz said. "[O'Sullivan] comes in and plays better than they did. It's a natural reaction. It is what it is but the truth is what it is. ...
"This was not a setup for J.T. or any of those things. It's unfortunate they feel that way, but regardless of that, I'm fond of Shaun. I think he's done a remarkable job. I'm excited for him."
Martz, the former Rams head coach, is a respected offensive mind with a known weakness for quarterbacks like O'Sullivan, who've come up the hard way. Martz transformed Arena League alum Kurt Warner into a Super Bowl MVP and helped make CFL refugee Trent Green a Pro Bowler. O'Sullivan was cut from the same cloth; he was undrafted out of college, appeared in only six games his first three seasons and was out of football the year before joining the Lions. In fact, former 49ers coach Mike Nolan didn't even mention O'Sullivan as a candidate to start prior to training camp last year.
However, when Hill was held out of several practices because of a tired arm -- he fumed at the time and told the staff he was fine -- eyebrows were raised.
"That was the toughest thing I've ever been through -- not just professionally, but in sports period, without a doubt," Hill said. "Without throwing too many [verbal] jabs here, the way it was all handled and my knowing Martz's perception of me was very, very difficult. Very difficult. Toughest thing I've ever been through in sports.
"It was a gut check every single night I left the office -- every night. It was building myself back up, instilling confidence in myself again, trying to dissect the game plans and decipher on each and every play what I should be doing in order to play the way that I need to play. It was difficult. It was so tough."
The clouds parted midway through the season when Mike Singletary was promoted after Nolan was fired. It took only one week for Singletary to bench O'Sullivan (who had 17 turnovers and just eight TDs) and start Hill, who led the team to a 5-3 mark in the final eight games. San Francisco finished 7-9 overall.
"Shaun surprised me when he played -- with the things he can do," Martz said. "He sees things and can digest things as a quarterback at the snap much better than he appeared to do during practice. I don't think you have to make any concessions with him. I was amazed and impressed with him coming down the stretch last year, and I [had been] kind of tentative about him, wasn't real sure. The more he played, the more a fan and believer he made of me."
In his eight starts, Hill completed 62.6 percent of his passes for 1,873 yards, 12 touchdowns and eight interceptions. His strength is his intuition and feel for the game. What he lacks in arm strength he makes up for by getting the ball out quickly. In fact, the receivers surpassed 110 yards after the catch in four of his starts.
"It was really tough early, but my family, my girlfriend, close friends I could call -- they were a huge help in me getting through it," Hill said. "You need somebody to vent to. A lot of times in a situation like that you need somebody to vent to outside of work. You don't want to be the guy that's bringing a bunch of negative energy around the locker room and things like that and talking about all that stuff. You don't' need to bring team morale down. It needs to be somebody outside the building."
The last laugh clearly belongs to Hill, but not surprisingly he's too polite and too professional to take it.
"I didn't play those games with a personal vendetta out against him," he said of Martz. "The satisfaction I got was that the team was winning and I got to be a part of that. I knew I wasn't going to change how he felt about me, just because of the way it all started and what he had to do to put me down on the depth chart at the beginning. So that wasn't even a concern of mine anymore."
Both Hill and Smith say they have great respect for the way Singletary and new offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye handled things this year.
"As a player you want to hear the truth," Hill said last week. "You want to know exactly where you stand, and we're getting that. That's so great. You don't have question marks. You know where you stand. It is nice to have the coaches be so upfront and honest with us about everything. Everything is out in the open, no hidden agenda."